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The Magic Skin

1. The Talisman
Towards the end of the month of October 1829 a young man entered the Palais-Royal just
as the gaming-houses opened, agreeably to the law which protects a passion by its very
nature easily excisable. He mounted the staircase of one of the gambling hells
distinguished by the number 36, without too much deliberation.
"Your hat, sir, if you please?" a thin, querulous voice called out. A little old man,
crouching in the darkness behind a railing, suddenly rose and exhibited his features,
carved after a mean design.
As you enter a gaming-house the law despoils you of your hat at the outset. Is it by way
of a parable, a divine revelation? Or by exacting some pledge or other, is not an infernal
compact implied? Is it done to compel you to preserve a respectful demeanor towards
those who are about to gain money of you? Or must the detective, who squats in our
social sewers, know the name of your hatter, or your own, if you happen to have written
it on the lining inside? Or, after all, is the measurement of your skull required for the
compilation of statistics as to the cerebral capacity of gamblers? The executive is
absolutely silent on this point. But be sure of this, that though you have scarcely taken a
step towards the tables, your hat no more belongs to you now than you belong to
yourself. Play possesses you, your fortune, your cap, your cane, your cloak.
As you go out, it will be made clear to you, by a savage irony, that Play has yet spared
you something, since your property is returned. For all that, if you bring a new hat with
you, you will have to pay for the knowledge that a special costume is needed for a
gambler.
The evident astonishment with which the young man took a numbered tally in exchange
for his hat, which was fortunately somewhat rubbed at the brim, showed clearly enough
that his mind was yet untainted; and the little old man, who had wallowed from his youth
up in the furious pleasures of a gambler's life, cast a dull, indifferent glance over him, in
which a philosopher might have seen wretchedness lying in the hospital, the vagrant lives
of ruined folk, inquests on numberless suicides, life-long penal servitude and
transportations to Guazacoalco.
His pallid, lengthy visage appeared like a haggard embodiment of the passion reduced to
its simplest terms. There were traces of past anguish in its wrinkles. He supported life on
the glutinous soups at Darcet's, and gambled away his meagre earnings day by day. Like
some old hackney which takes no heed of the strokes of the whip, nothing could move
him now. The stifled groans of ruined players, as they passed out, their mute
imprecations, their stupefied faces, found him impassive. He was the spirit of Play
 
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